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HP Research Project Defines Future of Computing

Innovative project realises the potential of large-scale, flexible computing power used as a utility


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LONDON, December 8, 2005 - HP Laboratories today revealed the findings of the SE3D Animation Showcase; a year-long, innovative research project that investigated the potential of large-scale, flexible computing power. The SE3D Animation Showcase, an HP Laboratories partnership with Alias and the Watershed Media Centre, gave 11 groups of animators an opportunity to create their own 3D short Hollywood grade animated films using the experimental rendering service developed at HP Laboratories.

Researchers at HP Laboratories chose the animation industry as a test-bed for the future of computing services to see how, in the context of media production, flexible, powerful utility computing services can change the technology and dynamics of an industry. Their objective was also to load-test the computing services in a complex, demanding environment across multiple users.

The computing services, which were used to enable fast, efficient rendering of hundreds of thousands of frames by the animators, were available as and when needed over an ordinary Internet connection. This model of computing, known as utility computing, delivers much more flexible, economical computing because users can tap in to a service and use as much as is needed – only paying for the amount of resource used. The customer does not need to own, maintain and upgrade expensive and specialised computing platforms of their own.

“Although the concept of computing on a utility basis is intuitive and appealing, making it real requires solving three technical challenges: ensuring the service is efficient, secure and reliable,” said Peter Toft, SE3D project manager at HP Laboratories, Bristol. “The SE3D Animation Showcase demonstrates that utility computing across a complex, demanding, multi-user environment is real and ready today.“

Automation is the key to unlocking the future potential of utility computing services and ensuring that they are efficient, secure and reliable. While manual configuration of many aspects of computing is feasible for small-scale computing (such as for a medium-sized organisation), it would literally become unmanageable in the large-scale utility model. SE3D researchers designed and implemented technologies that would automate all aspects of the animators’ rendering service, including system configuration, resource allocation, failure detection and self-recovery.

The service integrated a number of innovative HP Labs technologies including:

  • Market-based resource allocation: to solve the challenge of how computing resources are allocated, HP Labs implemented a fully-automated market-based resource allocation scheme, analogous to the eBay auction system. Users “bid” for the computing power they require using assigned credits. This is the first time market mechanisms for computing resources have been tested in this way.
  • Management by Business Objectives (MBO): automatically allocated and controlled the computing resources. MBO allowed the service to accommodate resource failures and if necessary to re-optimise resource allocations based on what users have paid and on what penalties are due for non-delivery of resources. MBO calculated and applied any refunds that were due.
  • Smart storage: When animators make changes to their input data, a technology called Elephant Store uploads the absolute minimum set of binary changes to the remote service. This has a dramatic effect on the volume of data that is transferred, making highly efficient use of network bandwidth.
  • SmartFrog (Smart Framework for Object Groups): orchestrates all of the software elements that comprise the utility rendering service. It installs, starts and manages all the software components in the system, allows software configurations to be changed easily, and detects and recovers from failures.

One of the most important findings from the project is that automation is central to utility computing success: for driving out cost, increasing flexibility and releasing humans for high-level tasks. Automation technologies in the SE3D programme were vital in operating the service efficiently. Operator intervention was rarely required for the automatic resource allocation and automatic failure detection and recovery systems.

The implications of the research are wide-ranging, explained Toft. “The findings of this project will feed and fuel HP’s ability to offer utility computing services to customers. The utility computing model stands to benefit industries that rely on large amounts of secure, robust computing power, such as financial services, engineering, oil and gas, and scientific research.”

Facts & Figures

• 500,000 CPU hours reserved by film-makers in the resource market

• 500,000 frames of animation rendered

• Service availability of more than 99 percent

• Defended against more than a million attempts to break in to the service, including 16,000 worm attacks.

Related links

» Fast facts
» Technology backgrounder
» SE3D site

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Still from Little Angel by Screenbum
Still from Little Angel by Screenbum

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